My Olympics Journey: 'High like none other,' Suma Shirur remembers Athens 2004

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Suma Shirur is the high-performance coach of India's junior rifle team. She made it to the finals of the 10-metre air rifle event at the 2004 Olympics, where she finished eighth. She spoke to Shantanu Srivastava about her Olympic experiences. *** I have very clear and strong memories of my 2004 Olympics. It all started in February when I made a world record at the Asian Shooting Championships which was the last chance to qualify. Even before that, my coaches used to tell me that we don't want you to just get an Olympics quota somehow. We want you to earn a quota and go as a top seed. I could achieve that with a gold medal and a world record score of 400/400, and I really stormed my way into the Games.

The build-up was one of the most beautiful, challenging, and fun times of my life. It started with procuring an electronic target. In those days we didn't get electronic targets that easily, and I was among the first shooters in India to have an electronic target at home. There were not many sponsors back then, very limited support from the government, and we pretty much managed on our own.

My husband was a big support. The electronic target was quite expensive. We were a young couple, and I told my husband that I feel like we are spending all we have on this target. But he asked me to go all out so that I don't regret anything. Once we got our electronic target, the next question was where to set it up. Our house didn't have enough space, so my husband hired a shop in the vicinity that had a length of 10 metres and set up a basic range.

Every morning, I would lift the shutter, enter the shop, pull the shutter down, and then it was just me and my rifle. I tried simulating an Olympic environment in my head, and it really made a difference. So, I can say that much of my Olympics preparations happened in a vacant rented shop.

Closer to the Olympics, I went to Austria with my then coach Laszlo Szucsak. It was a beautiful experience. The place was lovely, the range was nice, I think it was some of the best shooting times of my life. I was in the best form of my life. I don't recall shooting a single 9. I was always shooting 10s. From Austria, we travelled across Europe for a number of small competitions as part of my build-up for the Olympics.

I remember a competition where there were very few shooters but the quality of competition and the level of shooting was top notch. It was sponsored by Swarowski, and after I won the match, the Swarowski people gave me a wide variety of gifts to choose from. That was good fun.

On my off days, I would go hiking in the hills or walk along the rivers, all by myself. I just loved that experience. The time that I spent with myself was therapeutic. Spending time with oneself is a very meditative process and helps you relax, especially ahead of such a big event.

I was into a lot of visualisation, in fact, I have done it all my life. Mind is your biggest strength, and it is important to condition it right. You can do everything as long as you believe it in your head. I did a lot of pranayam to keep me calm and focused.

After my Europe stint, I came to India for a week, just to touch base with my folks in Mumbai. I still remember my drive to the airport €" the anticipation, thrill, nervous energy. At the airport, I saw a school bus teeming with kids. The Father of the school where I had studied had taken special permission from the airport authorities and brought all these kids to cheer me and wish me luck at the departure. They did a small farewell ceremony inside the airport too where they sang a song for me. That was really sweet, although a bit dramatic!

I lived in an apartment with my husband outside the Games Village because I wanted to stay away from all that Olympics buzz. I remember it rained a bit on the day of my competition and as I walked from the apartment to my range, I looked up and instantly got a feeling that it'll be a good day.

I think I dropped three out of my first 15 shots in qualification, but I could finish the match with a 100, and that gave me a place in the finals. Anjali Bhagwat was also competing in the event but she, unfortunately, missed the final. The onus was on me now to get a medal.

Truth be told, I was very happy just to make it to the finals. Back then, making it to the finals was a big deal for Indians. Now when I look back, I feel perhaps even my coaches didn't prepare me enough to handle the pressure. It was just not normal for us to make it to an Olympics final. From that mindset to now, I think India has come a long way. We enter the range believing we are good enough to stand on top of that podium.

Being at an Olympics is a high like none other. You feel that you belong to a greater athletic community. In our times, as it is there were not many sportspeople around. In the entire New Bombay area, I was the only shooter. When people would come to know that I shot for a living, they would think I am preparing to join the defence forces. I had to tell people that it is a sport and I am preparing for the Olympics. They obviously thought I was crazy.

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We really didn't have a sports culture or any kind of appreciation for sports. When I entered the Olympics village, I felt special because I thought I was a part of a greater sporting community that is non-existent at home.

Looking at how some of the elite athletes looked after their bodies, the effort they put in in training was truly inspirational. The energy and the vibration of an Olympics village cannot be replicated anywhere.

Olympics is also the time when you meet a number of athletes, from abroad as well as from your own country. I remember meeting Aparna Popat, Anju Bobby George, Leander Paes €" all legends in their own right €" at the Games because generally all the sportspersons are in their respective camps and it is not possible to catch up. It was nice getting to know them, how they prepare and how their sports function.

Personally, I was not happy with my performance in the final. I know making it to the final was a big deal back then, but I think I could have won a medal. My shooting wasn't bad; just that I was not getting big 10s consistently. Plus, I was not prepared to deal with the pressure of an Olympics final. I was closer to the medal than the scores or standings suggest.

After my match, I went to see a few other events €" hockey and tennis €" I recall. I left after a couple of days. At the Athens airport, as I sat by myself, I remember suddenly breaking down. I don't know what hit me. I could feel the emptiness like it was all over. It was a terrible sinking feeling. Also, the extreme disappointment of missing a medal.

I remember watching Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore's match with Abhinav Bindra. We were just sitting and sharing our respective heartbreaks when we saw Rathore coming up the ranks. As his match went on, we forgot our disappointments and immersed ourselves in his performance. When he won a silver, it obviously lifted the mood of the entire contingent. We understood the importance of his medal only after we landed in India; we could see how much it meant to the people.

With my experience, I can say that once you are in the final, everyone has an equal chance to win. It all comes down to whether you and your coaches believe in you.

As a coach, I hope for great things from my shooters. My goal is to bring out their best, and if their best is good enough for a gold medal, nothing like it.

All the shooters in the team know what they are capable of, and they know they are at the Olympics for a medal. No one is travelling as a passenger. Gone are the days when people used to be happy being an Olympian; now we want to win and make an impression. We never talk about 'if' we make it to the final, we talk about 'when' we shoot in the finals or 'the finals are at so and so time etc.' This ensures shooters register these things at a subconscious level.

My Olympic journey has given me some important life lessons, and I am certain the Indian contingent will come home wiser from Tokyo. I extend my heartfelt wishes to each athlete, and my only message to them is, do your best.

Also See: Tokyo Olympics 2020: Indian shooting contingent to leave Zagreb for Japanese capital on 16 July

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